Whenever a new US President is inaugurated, there should more concern about their prospective foreign policy than what they are promising domestically, because the tenor of it affects far more people. Thus, there can often be a serious disconnect between how a president is perceived at home, and how by the rest of the world, inveterate movie cowboy Ronald Reagan providing one such example.
Even Presidents such as Donald Trump, who had a predominantly domestic agenda and an inward-looking voter base, have been judged in this way to begin with. Trump’s comments about “draining the swamp”, whilst referring to Americans, were widely believed to refer to people and activities outside US borders, where American voters like to believe most of the swamp is, albeit that is far from the truth.
It is clear how most of the world sees the ascension of Joe Biden in simple terms. Trump was an abusive bigot few wanted to be associated with. Biden is a return to civilized values, and things will get back to normal, however, that comes with caveats!
The former Vice-President and Senate Foreign Affairs Chair been around a long time, and knows most world leaders personally. Whatever his limitations, he is considered something closer to what the US presents itself as, the sort of US everyone wants to believe in.
Like all presidents, Biden will end up disappointing many who are reading whatever they want to on his blank slate. But we cannot seriously expect that he – or perhaps any future president – will be like Trump.
The Republican successes at House and Senate level in November show that Biden won because he was a means of getting rid of Trump, not because there has been an ideological shift in his direction. Biden’s instincts are to be the opposite of Donald Trump, but these will be reinforced with steel and concrete when the sole reason he has the job is to put clear water between himself, and what his base has watched with horror over the last four years.
Words Speak Louder than Actions
Foreign policy is largely conducted through gesture and pouring money and shutting eyes. In domestic politics, you have to actually do tangible things people can see, or claim the credit for tangible things others have done. In foreign affairs, what happens on the ground has far less impact than a word, a donation or a state visit – people directly affected by US policy in a negative sense still believe in alliance with the US because it still represents what they want, and knows how to sell itself that way.
So whether the expectations of Biden’s foreign policy are matched by reality won’t be measured in pragmatic things like GDP, employment rates and crime figures. We will work this out from the gestures made by US representatives abroad, and exactly who these people are.
The changes these gestures achieve will be less tangible. But for those on the receiving end they are the only hope they have that real change, or real continuance, will come, because the ground operatives will have to match their reality to the expressions, and if these are made correctly, some avenues will be closed and others opened.
So what gestures will Biden make or not make to show he is Uncle Sam and Apple Pie rather than Uncle Surface to Air Missile and Hamburgers Full of Kidney Disease? What we can expect from four years of Biden and Harris will become clear to the observant by looking for a few simple things, designed to be lasting first impressions, which will soon start rolling out with headline-inducing regularity.
All Guilty So All Innocent
The on-going problem Biden has is that the US Before Trump is also the US Before Covid. It won’t be able to go back to the old certainties. The US will want to take the lead in building a new world order broadly acceptable to most people, before somebody else does.
A few years back the former G7 group of industrialised countries became a part of the larger G20, in response to the global financial crisis. Working with the emerging economies, and the EU as a member in its own right, was presented as creating a more representative body. In fact it was an attempt to share the blame – the biggest players had mucked everything up, now everyone else had to help them clear up the mess before those big players lost the political influence their previous economic strength had brought.
So far the tactic has worked, and the aspiring countries have become ever more influential partners. If the big guns hadn’t pulled this stunt in time, there could easily have been a revolution in the global political order, with the emerging economies siding with the demonstrators who routinely attacked the G8 meetings.
How the Biden Administration wishes to leads the free world will be seen in the dreaded “confirmations” repeated every time a new Administration comes in. These are the equivalents of the “vote of confidence” familiar from the world of professional sport – if a coach under pressure receives a public statement of support from the team owners, you can bet he will be looking for another job before the end of the month.
Over the next few weeks, US Ambassadors everywhere will be giving variations of the speeches they all make when taking office – about how they can “confirm” the US remains committed to partnership with their host country, and helping it develop economically and politically. How we interpret these speeches will depend on exactly who is giving them, and how long they have been in the job—and how well they can lie.
Usually, what the ambassadors are actually saying is this – “Forget your aspirations, we will carry on doing what we like, just as before, and pretending it is support because we know we can get away with it”. This is why you don’t hear about ambassadors from one Western European country to another making such speeches – there is genuine and systemic co-operation between these countries, and bothering to point it out would only raise suspicion you meant the opposite.
If these speeches are given by holdovers from the Trump era, or earlier, they will be a plea to the White House to leave them alone. We will then see how long they remain in post. If they come from new appointees, the words might actually mean that the US will be more responsive to locals and their strange un-American ways, and want to build a partnership to defend the US position, rather than short-sightedly abusing the locals in the name of the “the US interest”.
The US always pretends that it supports democracy, human rights and rule of law, whilst preventing its “partners” at the bottom of the food chain from having these things. The US will still have trouble accepting that supporting these things means accepting voter choices, institutions, laws and practices it may not happen to like.
But if the proof of the coming round of “confirmation” speeches lies in supporting countries to develop as their voters choose, and use that support as the basis of partnership, we really will have change in US policy – which may be forced by the new circumstances, but will be welcome for all US partners, and more beneficial to the US itself.
Friends and Not Neighbours
Another change commentators are expecting from the Biden White House is greater involvement with international treaties. Here there is a diametric change of approach: Biden is expected to rejoin all the ones (Paris Climate Treaty, World Trade Organization etcetera) Trump has pulled out of.
The US is still party to a great number of international treaties, and does generally abide by them, or has pulled out. However it has also become famous for ignoring the concept of treaty-international law when it suits it: witness all the “interventions” in different countries, made on the basis that they are bad because the US says so, ignoring the legality of the regimes and actions the US doesn’t like.
When the Soviet Union rolled into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, these invasions were rightly condemned as uninvited interference in the affairs of other sovereign states. It seems the Soviets were invited by certain important people, but not the actual governments of these countries, acting in an official capacity.
Consequently these actions split the Communist movement, and gave the US a moral advantage it held, despite its own crimes, until it ultimately tore down the Iron Curtain. However, that advantage soon was lost.
Nowadays we have the spectacle of the US fighting hand in glove with terrorists in Syria, to which no one invited it, whilst condemning the presence of Russia in that conflict, although Moscow was invited to intervene by the internationally recognised Syrian government. Everything the US knows doesn’t work, it continues to do, offering other countries opportunities aching to be exploited, if they could only find better systems than the one the US theoretically offers.
Will any of this change? Not likely. The further away from its professed values the US gets, the more it has to justify its actions by maintaining that the latest US whim is more important than any treaty, and you might as well burn every basis for co-operation. But how the US frames its interventions will show us whether it wants to change.
So the US will continue to parade around claiming that it is protecting us from terrorists under Joe Biden or global warming. But what might change things to the better is soon labelled something really bad, and one only has to consider the contradictions in US foreign policy, as the elements which make someone a terrorist, in the eyes of the US, or a blatant polluter.
Terrorists are irregular actors who subvert legal norms and processes to achieve their ends. The weapon of the weak, and when new terrorists and state sponsors of terrorism are identified, the rationale is that they must be that because they fit the present panjandrum—and this is confirmed by all the other pretentious ones who know what is proper.
If this lazy reasoning is still heard under Biden, nothing will have changed. But if every new identification of a terrorist group is accompanied by an explanation of what legal structure they are subverting and how, the US might begin to reclaim the ground it has cast away from under its feet by being the biggest terrorists of all, but just too lily white to see it.
Your Future, Not Mine!
Biden will be the oldest man ever inaugurated president, at the age of 78, taking this title from his predecessor. This has sparked much discussion about whether he is intending to change much himself, or merely keep the seat warm for Vice-President Kamala Harris, who is expected to be more proactive than previous holders of the office once described as “not worth a bucket of warm spit.”
Trump was never likely to share any stage with anyone – the one time he tried was with Kim Jong-Un, who humiliated him (or rather his stupidity in meeting Kim) as badly as the grandly uniformed Mussolini humiliated a raincoat-clad Hitler at their first meeting in Venice in 1934. Biden may have no choice but to work with a Vice-President more than 20 years younger than him, especially if he is going to take actions with possible long term consequences, and expect to see them through—at least in his lifetime.
If trying to secure lasting impacts is to be a Biden hallmark, we will see it in the focus of overseas programmes. Nowadays we have “defence agreements” which are accompanied by “democracy promotion”. In other words, the US will prevent you developing an independent defence capacity, and your institutions will have some of the outward forms of democracy, but they will only be allowed to work if they produce the result the US wants.
We can all argue about the concrete forms of democracy and the path that human rights should follow. But in a more pragmatic vision, the US represents money, USAID, State Department, NED, and provides the education you need to take part in a feeding frenzy.
If the US stops talking about strategic partnership, and more about creating a model of actual willingness for partnerships through education and health development, in exchange for resources, we will be witnessing change. If all we hear about is defence and political reform, the new White House won’t have changed its spots. But there is a chance we might, as Biden does claim he wants to lead a global response to the pandemic, and this is the way to do it.
Those who lived under the Soviet Union are expert at distinguishing between what is said and what words actually mean. We will soon see, in these cited ways and others, whether White House Man Speaks With Forked Tongue, or whether we can trust him to be the change he pretends to offer. However, we know the record only too well, and all the presidents that came before. The main policy remains the same. It does not matter who is the actual, or comes close to a semblance of a president in how US Foreign Policy is dished out.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.